Every year since 1997, Starbucks has released a new design on its holiday cups. Almost all of them have been red — the first signature red cup debuted in 1999 — and the coffee chain has become known for the color.
Starbucks is switching things up this year, and unveiled four new designs on Thursday: red and green cups with stripes, argyle, flames and mistletoe patterns.
Only time will tell how consumers react to the new designs. After all, some of them sure had a lot to say in 2015 when Starbucks released a plain red cup. Many felt it was an attack on Christmas and Christianity in general. Indeed, the brand, in part, appears eager this year to both appease and please its customers who balked in past years when the company did away with symbols of the season.
Why is it that each year, we pay so much attention to the new cups when what matters most is presumably what’s inside them? Brands matter, and Starbucks has a strong one. Brands are important to our identity and self-expression; they help us understand who we are and signal that identity to other people. The holiday cup tradition, which creates both buzz and marketing opportunities, is a way for Starbucks to keep its brand top of mind and to engender customer loyalty. Starbucks has earned a place as a harbinger of changing seasons, such as with its pumpkin spice flavor that it unveils right around Labor Day every year. Although consumers’ penchant for the red cups might derive from multiple factors including holiday tradition, the stark and memorable contrast with Starbucks’ normally green logo might be one reason consumers have shown a fondness for this potentially potent marker.
Companies know strong brands keep customers coming back. Take the Nike swoosh. It resonates with consumers’ desire and aspiration for elite performance. And Dunkin’, which recently dropped “Donuts” from its name and now offers espresso-based beverages nationwide, sells coffee just like Starbucks. But its brand conveys more of a practical, coffee-as-fuel vibe. Starbucks is more about the coffee-drinking experience that comes with its own “language” of ordering drinks, such as a venti nonfat macchiato with an extra shot. Indeed, Starbucks has created a strong and powerful routine for customers, from how its products are ordered to baristas that call out drinks to consumers by name. As Starbucks has noted in its advertising, it cares about the individual identity of the consumer; the brand and its products is one means for consumers to express their individuality.
In addition to expressions of our identity, brands also speak to our preference for the familiar. We’re creatures of habit. We like routines and are often averse to disruption.
Consider what happened several years when Tropicana unveiled a new product package that featured a glass of orange juice, which replaced its iconic orange with a straw coming out of it. Customers backed away from the brand. After its package redesign, sales of its Tropicana Pure Premium line reportedly dropped 20 percent in two months, costing tens of millions dollars. Even though the only thing that had changed was the logo — not the product itself. Tropicana dropped the new logo and returned to the familiar.
The holiday season is associated with a series of traditions or markers that have become part of consumers’ routine; consumers expect and even desire to see these markers. The Starbucks’ holiday cup has become part of the transition to the holiday season for many consumers who, the company hopes, will embrace the new cup designs.